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 Athena Review, Vol. 4, No. 2

         Paris under the Carolingians and Capetians

         Carolingian France: In AD 751 Pepin the Short (Pepin le Bref), the son of Charles Martel, managed with papal approval and the support of bishops to depose the last Merovingian king, Childeric III (r.743-751), and install himself as king of France. Pepin's son Charles, a brilliant military commander who became known as Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 768-814), conquered lands throughout France and Germany which were united into the Carolingian empire. Pope Leo III, who sought Charlemagne's protection, proclaimed him Emperor of the Western World in AD 800.

          Setting up his capital at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), Charlemagne sponsored a virtual renaissance of classical learning. In 789 a school promoting scholarship and literacy was set up by the British monk Alcuin. Monasteries which provided teachers were able to flourish. Many new abbeys were built including several around Paris, which also grew as a seat of learning through its cathedral schools. One of the achievements of the Carolingian Renaissance was a major improvement in calligraphy replacing an unwieldy mixture of Merovingian, Lombardic, and Visigothic scripts (originally based on the cursive style of the Roman authorities) with the far more legible Carolingian miniscule. This writing style remained in use until after the invention of movable type in the 15th century.

          During the Carolingian period, the bishops of Paris greatly increased their political influence, often overreaching the counts who represented the absent sovereigns. The bishops were masters of most of the Île de la Cité and of a considerable portion of the right bank. Notre-Dame (fig.1) and the Abbey of St-Germain-des-Prés were each economic powers in their own right.

[Fig.1: View of Notre-Dame cathedral from the south, along the bank of the Seine (photo:Athena Review)].

          After Charlemagne's death in AD 814, his son Louis the Pious (r.814-840) had increasing difficulties in keeping the empire united. Louis' two sons, Lothar and Charles the Bald (r.843-877), engaged in a protracted power struggle for control of the empire that endured through most of the 9th century. In 843, an alliance was made with Louis the German in the Treaty of Verdun, which gave Italy to Lothar, Bavaria to Louis, and Neustria to Charles. Another German nobleman, Robert the Strong (whose descendants were called Robertians and, eventually, Capetians), joined Charles the Bald and helped him ward off impending threats by the Normans or Vikings. At least four major Viking attacks on Paris occurred between 845 and a year-long siege from 885-886.

          Eudes, a noble who had defended Paris against the Normans along with the Bishop of Paris Gauzelin, became king of France in 888, and repelled another Norman attack, assisted by Gauzelin's successor, Bishop Anscheric (886-91). After the death of Eudes, the Parisians recognized his brother, Robert I, Count of Paris, as king. Robert was followed by Hugh the Great. Hugh Capet, son of Hugh the Great, prevented Paris from falling into the hands of the troops of Emperor Otto II in 978; in 987 he founded the Capetian or Robertian dynasty.

          Paris under the Capetians: The beginnings of a more centralized government in France, and the gradual waning of feudalism, came with the rise of the Capetian dynasty in the late 10th century. The dynasty's founder, Hugh Capet (r.987-996), again made Paris the capital of France, and began to rebuild the city. Eventually, Paris grew back into commercial significance through activities related to river transport, textile manufacturing, and administration. Economic success under the Capetian regime eventually allowed the extensive rebuilding of French cathedrals in the Gothic style.

          In the 11th century, the city spread from the Île de la Cité to the right bank, which became a separate borough or ville of merchants ruled by their own provost. During the next two centuries, the reign of Philippe Auguste (r.1180-1223) is especially notable for the growth of Paris - streets were paved and the city walls enlarged; the first Louvre (fig.2) and several churches, including Notre-Dame (fig.1), were constructed or begun. Philippe Auguste began the consolidation of French provinces under a central government, and stabilized the monetary system, with important implications for the hiring of cathedral artisans.

[Fig.2: Plan of the original fortress of the Louvre, built in 1190-1202 (after Musée du Louvre; Paris)].       

          From 1190-1210, in the midst of increasing 12th century warfare between the Capetians and Burgundians, Philippe-Auguste erected a fortified wall around Paris. To further solidify the city's defenses, between AD 1190-1220, the Louvre was built on the Right Bank as a square fortress or castle of Crusader style (fig.2,3). The city walls were later extended in the 1360s-70s by Charles V of the Valois dynasty (r.1364-1380) to protect Paris from English invasions during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The Louvre, meanwhile, was expanded into a sprawling royal palace (fig.3).

          Bridges across the Seine added in the period of Philippe-Auguste included the Pont du Change (Bridge of Money-changers) connecting to the Right Bank, and the Pont St. Michel linking the island to the Left Bank. The Petit Pont, Grand Pont (later, the Ponte Notre-Dame) and the parallel Pont du Change were each covered with houses and shops, as shown in mid-16th century maps of Paris. This shows close parallels with the goldsmith's shops dating from the late Middle Ages on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. In 1183 Philippe Auguste also established the central market of Les Halles, until recently in use.  

       During his reign, the University of Paris was chartered. Philippe-Auguste's mandate in AD 1200 identified three parts of medieval Paris, including the Cité (island) with palace and administrative buildings, the merchants' town (ville) on the right bank, and the university on the left bank. As an autonomous borough, the university was separated from the cathedral, opening the door for independent scholarship in philosophy and the sciences. The university had its beginnings in the 12th century when professors such as Peter Abelard left the Cathedral School of Notre-Dame and began holding classes on the Left Bank where, in 1108, Abelard founded the school of St.-Victor. The Sorbonne (founded in 1257 by the cleric Robert de Sorbonne) became a center of theological learning with scholars including Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas. This era of expanded intellectual freedom, which saw the birth of the humanities at the university, coincides exactly with a flourishing literary culture (see Carmina Burana), as well as with the beginnings of Gothic architecture, and the expressive, often individualized sculpture and art that accompanies it.

[Fig.3: 15th century model of the Louvre based on illustrations in the Duc de Berry's manuscript, "Tres Riches Heures" (photo: Athena Review)].


Avril, F. and J. Gaborit. 2005. "La France Roman. Au temps des premiers Capetians" (987-1152). Paris, Musée du Louvre.

Bishop, B. (ed.). 1987. The Middle Ages. Boston, Houghton Mifflin.

Cole, R. 2003. A Traveller's history of Paris. 3rd edition. Northhampton, MA, Interlink books

Hoyt, R.S.  and S. Chodorow 1976. Europe in the Middle Ages. 3rd edition. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.

Pirenne, H. 1936. A History of Europe. (tr. B. Miall). New Hyde Park, New York, University Books.

The above text appears on pages 28-29 of Ancient and Medieval Paris: A Background to the Gothic era of Vol.4 No.2 of Athena Review. The complete text may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine.

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